Reflections of a Shoah Interviewer
by Lillian Gewirtzman
In The summer of 1994 I accepted The Shoah Foundation’s invitation to join the crew of interviewers for a week of work at a Catskill resort hotel. I saw the task as no different from my interview work in the city. The routine was the same: Fill out the questionnaire, get a sense of the person, dig through the reference books, frame an outline in your mind – yet stay open for the unexpected, do not let your thoughts stray, remember to maintain eye contact. Make sure to have closure before you depart. Take time to decompress.
I too am a survivor. Though I’d gladly forfeit both title and honor. I came to this job as an interviewee, thinking – not without a measure of arrogance – that I was better qualified for the job than many others. Well, why not? These are my people. I speak their languages. We share an Alma Mater – cum laude graduates of W.W.II and the Holocaust. And if their biographies do not exactly match
So what could be the “Unexpected” that I was to stay open to? I kept going over my training instructions in my head.
My interviewees to be were mostly elderly orthodox Jews, summering at a bungalow colony near Monticello, New York. They could have been my uncles and aunts. I knew their nightmares as well as their bouts of survivor-guilt, and the refrain to their stories which always came with a sigh: “It wasn’t so bad for me, others had it worse.” – As if it were a contest one would have preferred to have lost.
I had long since processed my own nightmares. The memories have receded and paled. I have reached an equilibrium. “Mine was truly not so bad an experience, others did have it much worse!” Those were my thoughts as I packed my valise, hit the highway, crossed a few oll-bridges, and headed for my room at the end of a corridor, at Kutcher’s Hotel in the town of Monticello.
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon. At the temporary office the hotel assigned us, Maura, the coordinator, was labeling video tapes. Rebecca, her assistant was on reception duty. Telephone wedged between chin and shoulder she was taking down notes on a small yellow scribble pad, using her free hand to show me to a chair and point to a tray of pastry swirls. The video crew, off for the day, were unwinding from the trials of the first week of work and getting ready for the week to come. Youngsters in my eyes
a bunch of summer camp counselors, chafed from their horse-rides and dripping chlorine-water, they were sharing stories of morning’s adventures. Susan, armed for my response with a sheepish smile, handed me a stack of Xerox forms. “Two, three, four, five….Six?…Six pre-interviews and six interviews in three days?” I barely took a breath between words: “Maura! Rebecca! Are you trying to kill me?” With no time for further protest, I lifted the first available telephone, folded back the cover page of the top form and heard my own voice echo through the receiver: “Good afternoon Mrs. R….., The Shoah Foundation calling……. I am L…..,your interviewer…….”
Others were arriving. I tried to memorize their names by matching them up with their faces: A woman named Ruth – proud stride,.. the biblical character. Rosalie – delicate, modest, the flower. Clifford – intense and very handsome. Lila – confident, professional; no wonder, she’s a TV Anchor!
Elizabeth, was easy to remember – polite – Austrian accent. So these were my teammates. A bit young for the job, I judged, though they were all in their forties. I wondered about Elizabeth, who made it clear she was not Jewish. Given the history of Austria, would the Holocaust survivors trust her? Would I?
My room-mate came on Monday morning. An unlikely duo to share a room I found myself thinking about the two of us as I took in the scene. A corpulent woman in an ankle-length skirt, baggy cardigan and large picture hat, she made me feel like a nudist with my bare legs and sleeveless summer dress. She threw down her canvas bag and her burgundy bath towel on the bed and in one continuous motion greeted me, introduced herself, and propping herself on a pillow against the headboard, with clip-board and pen, reached for the telephone on the night table and announced herself in Yiddish: “My name is Adele Abolafia…I am your interviewer!.” Smitten by her melodious, Lithuanian diction I followed her word for word through the series of questions: “Your full name? Address… A nickname?… something your parents called you… Did you have siblings?”
“Did you?…. Did?…. ” The question resonated dissonantly in my ears, though its a standard phrase in our line of work. I hear myself asking it over and over: “Did you have parents?…. Did you have aunts?…. Did you have cousins?…. Did you have Siblings?…. Did you have Children?….”
The answers pour forth: There once was a town……, a village……, a meadow……, yellow-eyed daisies swaying in the wind……, I wove them into my braids……, plucked at their petals……, he loves me; he loves me not……, a romance……, a love……. A Yeshiva……, a Rebbe……, My hobbies? Why, learning!……. Orthodox? No……, Our family was Neolog……, Father an academic……, mother also……, brother studying medicine in Vienna……., No he didn’t, didn’t survive……, none of them did……, only myself……. The old ones went first……, mother was forty……, her hair turned gray early……, silver by the light of the Sabbath candles……, A mass grave, a ditch……,
not even a wood chip to mark off the spot……. A camp sister we called it……, a barracks adoption – we kept each other warm on the wooden bunk and propped each other up in the snow on the death march……. Maiden name?……, I’m the last……, too bad I’m a woman……, I was only twelve……, do you know what they did to us?…us, little girls?……., Who?…… And who not?……, the Nazis… the Poles……, the Ukrainians……, sometimes even Russians – our saviors……. Yes we did……, did go back after……, after it was over ……, hoping……, searching……, leafing through the lists……. No ……, no one was left……, only a book……, my father’s Gemarah….., found it in the rubbish of our gutted home……, a wisp of his beard stuck on a page……, had a habit of plucking it when deep in thought……. Please pardon my tears……………..
“Please pardon mine. I have no right to weep. To partake of your grief. They stripped you of everything; this at least is your own.”
The room we are taping in is oppressively hot. Ventilation is off. The studio lamps have soaked up all of the oxygen. I have trouble breathing. “What about you, on whom all lights are focused on this hot August day?” my mind is addressing the body on the chair. “You are still for a moment. May I ask you a question? … Dare I violate the sanctuary in your circle of silence? Shall I take off my shoes and cover my head? Your eyes… They’ve turned inward… Where are you now? Other rooms? Bolted doors? Fingernails clawing at a concrete wall: air……, air please…, air…….”
I lack words of comfort. Only my eyes. They look into yours. “It’s over!” they say. “The interview’s over; the nightmares are not,” I read through the shield of your vacant stare, “the pillow’s my enemy……, the screams in the night……”
“Thanks, thanks for sharing.” I escort a bent figure slowly to the door. Parting is complicated, not easy for either of us. We have retraced the steps through the valley of the dead. For a moment we are kin; I know I’ve been elevated to the position of camp-sibling – one who understands. But we both know I don’t. No outsider does!
At noon I enter the crowded dining room. In the street a delivery truck is screeching to a stop, sending a draft through the links of my spine. The waiters rush by bumping into each other. Cutlery jangling. Metal on metal. A woman at the next table is talking about shoes: The outlet next door is running a sale. “Shoes?……, piles of shoes……, scuffed men’s work shoes……,ladies ballet slippers……, little white booties……” My mind won’t shut off.
Our table, reserved, bears an oak tag sign, SHOAH. My teammates are eating, chewing without interest. I am thinking of turnips. “The peels tasted good, but what a beating I got……,” a soft voice keeps whispering inside my ear.
“How was your interview?”
“Fine, thanks, and yours?”
“The same,” Ruth says, her eyes on her plate.
Our polite pitch for normalcy has a hollow ring. We tell each other jokes. Some of them crude. Like young surgeons after a night of gore. Its 12:45. Fifteen minutes to the next interview. I move through the corridors with the stiffness of the Golem. Don’t think so much… Stay with the task! Keep rehearsing the phrases: “Spell your name please….., the country……, the province……, the town…….”
In the evening we walk. Complain about mishaps: A lost key… a dry pen… Filibuster of thought. We are licking our wounds; also each other’s. Soliciting little morsels of comfort….. The truth is we’re huddling. Like they did. For warmth. We are juggling guilt:
“Should I have asked that?…… Did I rip off a scab?……”
“No, you’ve done right……She has thanked you, hasn’t she?…..Said she felt fine….”
“But what about tonight?….. Do you think she will sleep?”
“Shsh, close your eyes,” says my roommate Adele. Other times I cover her and soothe her to sleep. We bring each other tea and share boxes of Kleenex. She has long accepted my nudist persona, and I her multiple layers of cover-ups. We walk each other around the lake on sleepless nights.. I, in her hat and cardigan over my pajamas, tell her about the cold nights in the Soviet labor camp; she, fanning herself in the August heat, tells me about her parents in the Bielski partisan forests. We talk about camp-sister – concentration camp bonding, sprung from misfortune.
Elizabeth visits. We have formed a trio studying the reference books. Ensconced in the armchair at the foot of my bed she is poring over an atlas: “Was Zamosc Germany or Russia in September ’39?” she muses over a map.. “
That depends whom you ask” I answer playfully. We giggle like school girls sharing a secret. Could it be that we’ve met just three days ago? We know each other so well.
“I love you, Je T’aime”
thigh touching thigh. I’m flooded with feelings of love for all of them. All of the interviewers. Even the ones I don’t know too well. And the camera crew: Daniel, Nikolai, John, and Ramin – the eyes behind the lens that shared in our pain. The office team: Rebecca, Maura, and Susan – all those “camp-counselor boys” of yore, and the girls who overnight grew into women…nurturing mothers, who laid hands on our shouldees and brought us water between the shoots. I already miss them – all of my teammates. But especially Elizabeth and my sister Adele.
On the trip back home I try to concentrate on the road signs. I am straining to remember if my plants have been watered.
Tonight I’ll be reading a bedtime story to my grandchildren…. Elf kings….., tooth fairies….., waltzing princesses: “Once upon a time……
there was a town……, a village……, yellow-eyed daisies….. “